Concocted by some of the brightest minds in British military intelligence, it was an extraordinary decoy that fooled Hitler, saved ten thousand lives and helped win World War II.
But Matthew Macfadyen – who stars in the new Operation Mincemeat film which tells the true story of the intelligence officers who miraculously caught the Nazis off guard over the Allied invasion of Sicily – admits he wouldn’t failed in real life.
“I would have been a terrible spy. I wouldn’t have had the brains,” admits the Succession actor.
New film, Operation Mincemeat follows the plans of the Allies to trick the Nazis. Pictured, left to right: Matthew Macfadyen, Colin Firth and Kelly Macdonald
“Their minds were spinning all the time; they never went out. They had corkscrew intelligence. These are people who can do the Times crossword in two minutes.
Set in 1943 and based on the book of the same name by bestselling author Ben Macintyre, the blockbuster follows Charles Cholmondeley, played by Matthew, and Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) as they execute the most unlikely disinformation strategy in the war.
As the Allies prepared to invade southern Europe in 1943, they desperately sought to avoid the slaughter of their troops by German forces they knew would be massing in Italy. So they devised an extraordinary plan, endorsed by Churchill (played in the Simon Russell Beale film), to trick the Nazis into believing they would land in Sardinia and Greece rather than Sicily.
They dressed a corpse in a Royal Marines officer’s uniform and attached a briefcase containing false documents to the plan. The ruse was that he was a special courier who had fallen in a plane crash in the Mediterranean, and they aimed to float the body off the coast of neutral Spain, certain that it would be recovered by the Spanish and passed on to the Nazis.
Miraculously, the plot – which tested its creators’ nerves to the breaking point as they worked in their dark London basement HQ – worked.
“They were doing it every moment, but there was no glory,” says Matthew, 47, “no shouting from the rooftops. They never broadcast what they had done. Yet what they did was quite brilliant.
As the Allies prepared to invade southern Europe in 1943, desperate to avoid the massacre of their troops by German forces, they devised an extraordinary plan, approved by Churchill (played in the Simon Russell Beale film )
Colin’s character, Montagu, was a lawyer in civilian life. “He worked his way into his opponent’s mind with incredible vision,” said Colin, 61.
“It was clearly a skill he had in the courtroom. But that proved invaluable here because he was able to put himself in the shoes of the person on the other end of the deception.
The friendship and trust between the two officers in the film is key, but so is the love triangle between MI5 employee Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), Montagu and Cholmondeley that Colin saw as an important part of the story.
“An affection forms between these two men, but they are both in love with Jean. Jean cares about both of them, so it becomes this tussle of unspoken emotions, fueled by the very high stakes they operate in and this tiny, cloistered environment. They are thrown so closely together in a common cause.
Pictured: Intelligence officers with the body of Glyndwr Michael, whom the Allies dressed in a Royal Marines officer’s uniform and attached a briefcase containing fake documents on the plane
It is the very implausibility of Operation Mincemeat that makes it such a compelling story. The plot was conceived by none other than Bond creator Ian Fleming, played in the Johnny Flynn film, who read the idea in a novel called The Milliner’s Hat Mystery by Basil Thomson, which suggested that a body dressed as an aviator could be dropped with dispatches in his pockets and the suggestion that his parachute had failed.
It was hard to find the right corpse
Fleming proposed the idea to his boss, Admiral Godfrey, the head of naval intelligence who later became the model for M in the James Bond stories. But since it was so fantastic, Operation Mincemeat presented enormous challenges to the top-secret Committee of Twenty – in charge of secret agents – of which Montagu and Cholmondeley were members.
The first problem, explains Ben Macintyre, was to find a corpse. “Believe it or not, it was actually very difficult to find the right corpse.
“People were dying all the time, but they had to find a body that looked like it had drowned at sea and was from a plane crash,” he explains. “The meat of the story – ground meat, if you will – was trying to find a body and then go through the convoluted system of inventing a totally different character.
THE EYELASH THAT HAS SIGNED SUCCESS
Tom Cholmondeley is often approached by people whose loved ones’ lives were spared thanks to his father’s brilliant plan.
“When someone says, ‘My grandfather would have fought on that beach,’ it makes me so proud,” says TV producer Tom.
“Although I know the story well, I found the film captivating – who wouldn’t love to see their father as a hero saving 10,000 lives? The plan reduced the Sicily campaign from a planned 90 days to just 38.
“The navy thought 300 ships would be sunk, but they lost 12.” Tom lost his father when he was just 13, but still vividly remembers him talking about the critical campaign.
“Dad was very modest but I remember he grabbed the salt and pepper pots and said, ‘Here is Sardinia and here is Sicily and we had to persuade the Germans that we were going to attack the pepper pot. I was only eight years old but I felt very proud.
“He had an incredible spirit. They had a key letter to plant in the briefcase and they needed to know if it had been removed and seen.
As they knew that the Germans were very good at opening envelopes and closing them without anyone knowing, my father had the idea of dropping a single eyelash in the letter so that once opened it would fall without the Germans notice it.
And sure enough, they got the letter back and there were no eyelashes. So they knew that Hitler had fallen into the trap of the Allies.
One anecdote in particular stuck with Tom. “When they were dressing the body with a shirt, they had pushed his arm so that it was straight.
“But as my father was buttoning him up, the arm suddenly swept up and hugged him, scaring him.”
The real Charles Cholmondeley
“So they went about it as if they were constructing a novel. And that’s the key to the story: how do you create someone who never existed?
The couple called fake officer William Martin, although the real corpse is believed to be Glyndwr Michael – a drifter who had lived on the streets of London before dying in January 1943 after eating rat poison.
He fit the bill because his cause of death wouldn’t be easily identified during an autopsy, meaning spies could fake the injuries they needed to convince the Nazis he died in an accident. plane at sea.
Michael’s parents were also dead and no close relatives could be identified, meaning there was no need to obtain permission to take the corpse.
Cholmondeley and Montagu decided on the rank of captain (acting major) for their officer so that he would be senior enough to be entrusted with top secret documents, but not so senior that his death would be noticed.
To further bolster their ruse, they lined “Martin’s” pockets with an ID featuring a photo of MI5 officer Ronnie Reed – who was supposed to look like Glyndwr – and a photo of a fictional sweetheart, “ Pam,” who was actually Jean Leslie.
A receipt for an engagement ring, a letter from “Martin’s” father, theater ticket stubs, keys, cigarettes and a piece of pencil were also included. Attached to the corpse was a leather case containing intelligence documents marked “Top Secret” which detailed plans to attack Greece and Sardinia instead of Sicily, which the British hoped to pass on to Hitler.
In case they were, they convinced the Führer to move a number of armored divisions to Greece, which, together with a doubling of the number of troops in Sardinia, left Sicily vulnerable.
Interestingly, the film doesn’t focus on frontline heroes, but on shadow characters like Jean and Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), MI5’s chief secretary and the film’s emotional conscience.
“Jean Leslie is a breath of fresh air, and overall the female characters are very strong,” says Kelly Macdonald. “When you think of war, you think of soldiers on the ground.
“So it’s refreshing to focus on these people in a London basement coming up with ridiculous ideas on how to fool the Germans.”
Coincidentally, Matthew and Colin made a name for themselves playing Mr Darcy from Pride And Prejudice, and Matthew says that finally working with Colin was a dream come true.
“When I was a teenager I watched a movie Colin made in the 80s about the Falklands War called Tumbledown over and over and over. I also watched A Month in the Country [about soldiers recovering after World War I] Many times.
“So to work with him now, all these years later, has been really sweet.”
Even so, they still had a bit of a competition as to who looked the most impressive. “I’m a little disappointed,” Matthew laughs.
‘I wear the glasses. But I loved my mustache – and it got big.
“At first Colin thought he could have a beard, but he didn’t, but I had special facial hair, so there was a moment when he got angry at this subject.”
A hairy ride for the two former Darcys, but one that makes for a gripping war thriller.
- Operation Mincemeat hits theaters Friday